Photo essays seem like a daunting undertaking accomplished only by the massively creative unicorns living in our midst. They’re popular among the New York Times and Times of the world. However, you can easily learn how to make a photo essay, too. If done well, a photo essay can put a picture to your purpose and create a personal and emotional experience for your website visitors.
Previously, we talked about the benefits of a photo essay on your nonprofit’s website. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty process of how to make a photo essay and look at examples along the way. Let’s get started!
Find a Photographer
Before you do anything else, make sure you have a talented someone willing and able to take these awesome photographs. This someone can be a volunteer, staff member, or a professional photographer. Have someone in mind? Great!
Decide on a Message
What do you want to say with this photo essay? The message should be related to your nonprofit’s mission and vision. A good message has the capacity to invoke an emotional response to viewers.
Make a Game Plan
Pinpoint a subject or group of subjects to photograph. Action is great for photo essays, so it’s best if your subjects are doing something. Coordinate a time and place that works for the photographer as well as those being photographed. A photo essay does not need to be done in a day (although it definitely can be). Be sure to let your photographer know the more photos to choose from, the better.
Choose Your Photos
This is where the creative juices really start to flow. All of the photos should address the same message. As you’re choosing which photos to include, keep your core message in mind. Which photos best convey that message? Consider your audience as well, and choose photos that they’ll connect with emotionally. The photo essay tells a story, so be sure to arrange your photos in an order that makes sense for the story.
In this photo essay, Charity: Water tells the story of a school in Nepal that needs access to clean water and receives it. Each photo drives home their message: Everyone should have clean water. Whatever your message is, make sure it hits home in every photo you choose.
Include a Variety of Shots
Varying ranges and angles will add some depth to the photo essay. Wide shots set the scene, giving the viewer an idea of the location and who is involved. Medium shots are usually action- oriented. They give the viewer a better idea of what’s going on. Close-up shots are often among the strongest. They are intimate, focusing on one subject in a tight portrait. Detail shots can be integral to setting the scene. Often, these shots are a close-up of someone’s hands performing an action.
Team Rubicon uses photo essays on their “Story of Team Rubicon” page. They start out with a wide shot, then medium, detail, and close-up. The variation keeps the photos visually interesting, while sticking to the same message in every photo.
Format Your Photos
For a slideshow setup, keep all your photos the same size. Additionally, if you decide to include a border, it should be the same on every photo. A border is not necessary, but it can be useful in certain instances. Write a caption for each photo with a simple explanation of what is going on in the photo.
This New York Times photo essay on refugees uses a border on each of the portraits. The border ties together each of the portraits, taken at different times and in different countries. This method humanizes the crisis by photographing the refugees outside of the refugee camp, so they can be seen as dignified human beings.
Briefly Set the Scene
Your introduction should be short and informative. You definitely want to let your photos tell the story, so only include information that the average visitor would not be able to glean from the photo itself or the caption.
Conclude with a Call to Action
Include the call to action at the end of the photo essay. Appealing for support makes sense after you’ve given your visitors a chance to learn your mission through a photo essay.
So now you know how to make a photo essay for your nonprofit, and you’ve seen some stellar examples. Include your new photo essay on your website. Visitors will have a clear image of who they are helping and will be more likely to turn their emotional connection into support for your nonprofit.
Does your nonprofit use photo essays? Have any other tips on how to make a photo essay? Let us know in the comments below.
- Consider how difficult it will be to get permission to photograph your subjects. If you already have relationships established, it will be easier. If not, allow for extra time to get permission and/or waivers.
- Schools, daycares, and other places with kids typically have more regulations on who can be photographed and for what purposes. You’ll usually need to get parental approval, in addition to permission from those in charge.
- Consider doing interviews with people involved prior to the shoot. Ask things like, “What’s the most interesting thing you do during this event?” or “How long have you been involved with this organization?”
- These interviews are also a great opportunity to ask for permission and get waivers.
- If you’re going to visit a job site, charitable event, or other large group activity, ask the person or persons in charge to explain what you’re doing to everyone before you arrive.
Create an outline. Once you have your subject and permission to shoot, take a few moments to sketch out an idea of what photos you’ll need. Most essays need a variety of images to showcase the various aspects of the topic. You’ll want to include at least a signature photo, establishing shot, several detail shots, and a “clincher” photo at the end.
Choose a focus image. Sometimes referred to as signature photos, these should be images that capture the heart of your subject. Think of famous photos like the “Migrant Mother” image by Dorothea Lange, capturing a woman and her children during the Great Depression. This photo has become synonymous with the Great Depression in the US.
Take an establishing shot. This should be a wide-angle image of the overall story. If you’re shooting a day of work at an office, an image of a line of workers entering the building at the beginning of the day could be used as an establishing shot.
Plan out detail images. These shots should include a variety of portraits, close up shots of specific actions, and interactions. For instance, you could include a portrait of your “main character,” for an essay on a day at the office, typing on a computer. You could also include interaction images of the character leading a meeting with others or talking over coffee in the break room. Close ups can include things like images of your subject’s hands as she types or detailed shots of her computer screen.
Include a clincher. This image may not be apparent to you in the beginning, but most photographers say they know it when they see it. It’s an image that wraps up the essay for the viewer. This image should say “the end,” give a call to action, or show the end result of a day in the life or how to sequence.